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The Speech Signal

Module by: Don Johnson. E-mail the author

Summary: Analyzing speech as both a signal and a system.

The period of the vocal cord's output for vowels is known as the pitch. Indeed, singers modify vocal cord tension to change the pitch to produce the desired musical note. Vocal cord tension is governed by a control input to the musculature; in system's models we represent control inputs as signals coming into the top or bottom of the system. Certainly in the case of speech and in many other cases as well, it is the control input that carries information, impressing it on the system's output. The change of signal structure resulting from varying the control input enables information to be conveyed by the signal, a process generically known as modulation. In singing, musicality is largely conveyed by pitch; in western speech, it is much less important. 1 A sentence can be read in a monotone fashion without completely destroying the information expressed by the sentence. However, the difference between a statement and a question is frequently expressed by pitch changes. For example, note the sound differences between "Let's go to the park." and "Let's go to the park?"

For some consonants, the vocal cords vibrate just as in vowels. For example, the so-called nasal sounds "n" and "m" have this property. For others, the vocal cords do not produce a periodic output. Going back to mechanism, when consonants such as "f" are produced, the vocal cords are placed under much less tension, which results in turbulent flow.


You can emulate this situation with your rubber band.
The resulting output airflow is quite erratic, so much so that we describe it as being noise. We define noise carefully later when we delve into communication problems.

The vocal cords' periodic output can be well described by the periodic pulse train p T t p T t , with T T denoting the pitch period. The spectrum of this signal contains harmonics of the frequency 1T 1 T , what is known as the pitch frequency or the fundamental frequency F0 F0 . The primary difference between adult male and female/prepubescent speech is pitch. Before puberty, pitch frequency for normal speech ranges between 150-400 Hz for both males and females. After puberty, the vocal cords of males undergo a physical change, which has the effect of lowering their pitch frequency to the range 80-160 Hz. If we could examine the vocal cord output, we could probably discern whether the speaker was male or female. This difference is also readily apparent in the speech signal itself.

Figure 1: The systems model for the vocal tract. The signals lt l t , p T t p T t , and st s t , are the air pressure provided by the lungs, the periodic pulse output provided by the vocal cords, and the speech output respectively. Control signals from the brain are shown as entering the systems from the top. Clearly, these come from the same source, but for modeling purposes we describe them separately since they control different aspects of the speech signal.
model of vocal tract
model of vocal tract (sys7.png)

To simplify our speech modeling effort, we shall assume that the pitch period is constant. With this simplification, we collapse the vocal-cord-lung system as a simple source that produces the periodic pulse signal (Figure 1). The sound pressure signal thus produced enters the mouth behind the tongue, creates acoustic disturbances, and exits primarily through the lips and to some extent through the nose. Speech specialists tend to name the mouth, tongue, teeth, lips, and nasal cavity the vocal tract. The physics governing the sound disturbances produced in the vocal tract and those of an organ pipe are quite similar. Whereas the organ pipe has the simple physical structure of a straight tube, the cross-section of the vocal tract varies along its length because of the positions of the tongue, teeth, and lips. It is these positions that are controlled by the brain to produce the vowel sounds. Spreading the lips, bringing the teeth together, and bringing the tongue toward the front portion of the roof of the mouth produces the sound "ee". Rounding the lips, spreading the teeth, and positioning the tongue toward the back of the oral cavity produces the sound "oh". These variations result in a linear, time-invariant system that has a frequency response typified by several peaks, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The ideal frequency response of the vocal tract as it produces the sounds "oh" and "ee" are shown on the top left and top right, respectively. The spectral peaks are known as formants, and are numbered consecutively from low to high frequency. The bottom plots show speech waveforms corresponding to these sounds.
Speech Spectrum
Speech Spectrum (spectrum6.png)

These peaks are known as formants. Thus, speech signal processors would say that the sound "oh" has a higher first formant frequency than the sound "ee", with F2 F2 being much higher during "ee". F2 F2 and F3 F3 (the second and first formants) have more energy in "ee" than in "oh." Rather than serving as a filter, rejecting high or low frequencies, the vocal tract serves to shape the spectrum of the vocal cords. In the time domain, we have a periodic signal, the pitch, serving as the input to a linear system. We know that the output—the speech signal we utter and that is heard by others and ourselves—will also be periodic. Example time-domain speech signals are shown in Figure 2, where the periodicity is quite apparent.

Exercise 1

From the waveform plots shown in Figure 2, determine the pitch period and the pitch frequency.


In the bottom-left panel, the period is about 0.009 s, which equals a frequency of 111 Hz. The bottom-right panel has a period of about 0.0065 s, a frequency of 154 Hz.


  1. In some East Asian languages, pitch plays a much larger role.

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